Water struggle in the San Luis Valley, communities band together


Within the San Luis Valley of Colorado lies over 1.3 million acres of agricultural land, spreading amongst 1,739 different farms, and providing 4,687 local jobs. All of which is currently threatened by the onslaught of aridification in the San Luis Valley, resulting from changing climate.

“Climate change impacts how much snow we get, and how early we get it, which shifts how we react and ultimately how we farm,” says Cleave Simpson, General Manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in Alamosa, Colorado. The San Luis Valley relies on Climate change is an “imbalance problem,” according to Simpson. He and other officials propose solutions that include government subsidies allotted in return for farmers choosing to idle pieces of land for certain periods of time.

The community has come together to combat the aridification of the valley by organizing subdistricts in which they advocate for the betterment of the entire valley and its water resources. “The sacrifices and efforts of the community are commendable,” says Simpson.

Over the years, farmers in the valley have begun to see the climate changing within their largely family-run farming operations.

“Water is definitely on our minds,” says Shelton Rockey, third generation farmer and owner of Rockey Farms LLC in Center, Colorado. He’s noticed the planting dates arriving earlier in the year and has focused much of his operation on diversifying crops, which include green manure and cover crops in order to conserve water.

There is a distinct contrast to be drawn by what now is and what used to be. “I remember my dad cussing and screaming because the tractors were stuck in the field when the water table was too high, back then there was plenty of water, there was no concern,” says Rockey. Now, water looms heavy on the minds of nearly all members of the community.

“Water is a major crisis. We are trying as much as we can to keep potato production going in this time of crisis, and make sure we maximize efficiency of water use,” said lead researcher Samuel Essah at the Colorado State University’s San Luis Valley Research Center. Essah and his research team are currently using scientific methods to “define management guidelines for the successful, sustainable, and economic production of new and existing potato cultivars.”

“They want to change, they want more advice for how best to grow potatoes,” said Essah on the response of local farmers to his work. According to Essah, the farmers are excited to adopt new sustainable methods for multiple reasons, the greatest being cost. Water in the San Luis is getting more expensive, prices this year expected to be $150 per acre-foot, and with Essah’s water-efficient potato varieties and farming methods, farmers will see huge economic benefit as well as benefits to the health of the water supply.

In addition to water stress from climate warming, the valley is experiencing external pressures which may lead to an all-out water war.

Renewable Water Resources, a politically connected corporation, is coming into the valley with hopes to drill a pipeline to steal 22,000 acre-feet of water from the valley into the Front Range. The company is particularly pressuring the younger generation farmers to sell water rights. Valley local of 20 years and director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, Christine Canaly, describes the water crisis as a classic “David and Goliath water story”. Goliath being played by the corporate outsiders trying to buy water out of the valley, and little David by the farmers who rely on that water for their entire existence. Canaly desperately hopes her valley’s water story will have just as triumphant an ending as the biblical one.

The simple answer to this problem may be to just give up, but for people like Simpson, Rockey, and Canaly, their valley and way of life is worth fighting for.

“People tell me I’m crazy for what I’m doing here, rearranging the desk chairs on the Titanic,” says Simpson, but his motivations for saving the San Luis Valley’s water stem deeper than just business. “It’s internal to me, I was born here, and I have a connection to it, I want to pass on my farm to my son,” says Simpson with an optimistic smile.

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